Meet John Kiriakou

WASHINGTON — Meet John Kiriakou. A married father with a baby and two small children at home, he once had a fulfilling job as a CIA operations officer and spent his early post-9/11 days “hunting down [al] Qaeda figures” in Pakistan for his country.

If only he kept his mouth shut.

Take a good look at Kiriakou because it is likely you won’t see him the same way again, at least not for a long while, because he’s been charged with disseminating classified information under the Espionage Act, in addition to disclosing the name of a covert CIA operative to a New York Times reporter, and making false statements in order to describe a classified interrogation technique in his 2010 memoir, The Reluctant Spy.

The charges against Kiriakou stem from his alleged sharing of classified information about the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program (RDI) — including the name of a covert CIA agent — with journalists, at least one of whom supposedly passed the name of the agent to defense lawyers for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He is also charged with disclosing the name of another CIA officer, who not technically covert, was associated with the classified, brutal interrogation — torture — of suspected terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who is still rotting (probably quite literally, considering what we now know about his physical and mental health) in Gitmo without charge.

Thirdly, according to the official criminal complaint filed in the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Jan. 23, the government claims that Kiriakou told the Publication Review Board in charge of screening his manuscript for The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror that certain parts of the book were fictionalized, with the ulterior motive of sneaking in real details about interrogation techniques that happened to be real — and classified. But the elements screeners red flagged never made it into the book, according to the government’s own admission.

All told, Kiriakou faces 30 years in prison for the charges leveled against him.

Calling it the Obama Administration’s “record breaking war” on whistle-blowers, attorney Jesselyn Radack, herself a Department of Justice whistle-blower and now head of a program that advocates for, and represents whistle-blowers at the Government Accountability Project, told that Kiriakou will now be tarred with the traitor image whether he is eventually found guilty or not.

“He is being charged under the Espionage Act … (which is) a World War I-era law that is incredibly heavy-handed and confusing and meant to go after spies,” she said. “All we have heard is the government’s allegations, we haven’t heard his side. Just tagging someone with the espionage label automatically brands him as an enemy of the state. It alienates him from people who would normally be his allies.”

Kiriakou’s attorney has said his client will plead not guilty but would make no further comment to the press.

The isolation has already begun. His wife Heather Kiriakou, was forced to resign from her job as a top CIA analyst while on maternity leave, The Washington Post reported last week. “The end of Heather Kiriakou’s CIA career appears to represent the most immediate fallout from the latest case brought by the Obama administration in its campaign to stamp out leaks of government secrets to the press,” wrote Greg Miller. The CIA had no immediate comment.

“Marriages are strained, and spouses’ professional lives suffer as much as their personal lives. Too often, whistle-blowers end up broken, blacklisted, and bankrupted,” Radack wrote last week on the Daily Kos website.

“The worst case scenario is when the government chooses to bring criminal charges and a whistle-blower’s freedom is at stake, potentially jailing him from his family … for decades.”

Thomas Drake, who was tainted by similar charges of espionage in relation to his discussions with reporters about the National Security Agency’s wireless surveillance program, says the government made his life hell before, during, and especially after his indictment in 2010. He not only lost his job but his security clearance and now works at an Apple Store — despite the fact all charges were eventually dropped in exchange for a single misdemeanor.

“(The) government convinced themselves I was a bad guy, an enemy of the state, and went after me with everything they had seeking to destroy my life, my livelihood and my person — the politics of personal destruction while also engaging in abject, cut throat character assassination, and complete fabrication and frame up,” Drake told in a recent exchange about the Kiriakou case.

Peter Van Buren, as you know from previous columns, lost his position, his top secret security clearance and diplomatic passport, but he is still awaiting a ruling as to whether he violated the State Department’s rules when he linked a posting on his personal blog to a document that WikiLeaks had published in 2009 but the government still considers classified.

The agency also complained that Van Buren didn’t get the proper approvals before publishing his work. Van Buren has been highly critical of the war in Iraq, and shared his own accounts as a frustrated and disenthralled member of a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

“What has happened during the Obama administration— which has sought more prosecutions under the espionage act than any other— is a simultaneous classification of everything, coupled with a wicked hand to slap down anyone who “divulges” that info. If everything is classified than everyone in the government who speaks out is a spy,” Van Buren said, when recently asked him about the Kiriakou case.

“In the current climate, an accusation by the government, however exaggerated or even outright false, creates an atmosphere that will destroy most people,” Van Buren added. “If the legal fees defending themselves do not lead to bankruptcy, then the media play will ruin their chances of other employment, drag in their spouses and children and punish them quicker and more personally than the courts may or may not ever get around to doing.”

The bitter irony, Van Buren and the others say, is that while President Barack Obama appears totally committed to stamping out government leaks about torture policy, he’s declined to pursue a similar course against those responsible for torturing prisoners in the first place.

“The Obama Administration is further criminalizing the exposure of the US’s own state sponsored and supported criminal behavior and activity — namely torture and in my case warrantless surveillance — while protecting and hiding from accountability those who authorized, approved, conducted and implemented the criminal behavior and activity under the cover and guile and guise of secrecy,” Drake said.

By any other measure, Kiriakou loved being a CIA agent, but started becoming disillusioned shortly after his interaction with and the subsequent torture of Abu Zubaydah under his CIA handlers in 2002. Kiriakou resigned from the agency in 2004 and worked in the private sector as a security analyst. He eventually lost that job in 2007 when he began wading into the waterboarding debate.

That’s because he had come to the conclusion that waterboarding didn’t work and was morally wrong (check out his book, and the last few minutes of this BookTV interview in 2010). In addition, reporters he allegedly worked with (and now at the center of the complaint against him) eventually wrote stories critical of Bush’s interrogation policies.

In regards to Kiriakou “outing” an agent, the reporter he allegedly spoke to gave the name to defense lawyers, according to the indictment, who then used it in a “double blind” line-up for detainees to determine which agents had been in charge of their individual interrogations. A subsequent investigation found that members of the defense team “did not break any laws” in “handling the classified information they possessed,” but nevertheless, according to the complaint, Kiriakou broke the law when he divulged the information in the first place.

And yet this year, while this sitting president has said his administration breaks with former policies that allowed the torture and secret rendition of prisoners, the Obama Administration declined to pursue the prosecution of CIA officials allegedly involved in more than 100 cases of such activity, and gave a virtual “slap on the wrist” to the CIA for destroying 92 classified tapes showing suspected terrorists being tortured during interrogations, as well as detailed records of the so-called rendition “torture flights,” including the passengers, destinations and planes.

The same goes for the warrantless wiretapping. Contrary to his aggressive attacks on whistle-blowers, Obama has been more than accommodating to government forces that even he believed were undermining citizens’ constitutional rights when he was “candidate Obama” that is, in 2008.

Despite his opposition to warrantless surveillance under the Bush Administration, Obama not only voted as senator to give immunity to the telecom companies that assisted the government in violating the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) in regards to spying on Americans, he has supported a continuation of the Bush policies, and has been far less aggressive in holding individuals and agencies to account when they blatantly overstep the law.

Instead, Tom Drake has been the only government official to be prosecuted in association with the warrantless wiretapping scandal — not because he was spying on Americans, or lying about it or trying to hide it, but because he thought what the NSA was doing was wrong and when he exhausted his options in-house, he went to the media with his complaints.

“The fetid odor, the thing that really stinks about this case is that CIA officers had been immunized for committing waterboarding, for committing torture,” said Radack. “Now, the only person being prosecuted in connection with torture is John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on waterboarding being torture. And the only person to be prosecuted in connection with warrantless electronic surveillance is Tom Drake, a whistle-blower who blew the whistle on warrantless surveillance.”

Of course this administration is not to the first to persecute and ruin the lives of people before they are ever convicted of a crime. Just last weekend, The Washington Post reported that “deep” in the government’s files relating to its case against Bruce Ivins, the military scientist accused of single-handedly pulling off the 2001 anthrax attacks, are the justice department’s own doubts the man really did it.

The unusual spectacle of one arm of the Justice Department publicly questioning another has the potential to undermine one of the most high-profile investigations in years, according to critics and independent experts who reviewed the court filings.

“I cannot think of another case in which the government has done such an egregious about-face. It destroys confidence in the criminal findings,” said Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University.

Of course, Ivins will never be really vindicated, no matter what, because he committed suicide in July 2008, before any formal charges were filed but at the height of speculation and character assassination, all generated by the FBI, which openly fingered him as the lone anthrax killer. By the time he took his own life at 62, Ivins was known as a pill-popping neurotic gadfly who stalked women and therapists and held dangerous grudges.

Before that, in June 2008, the government paid Dr. Steven J. Hatfill $5.8 million dollars in a settlement over charges the FBI invaded his privacy and ruined his career. He, too, had been publicly targeted as the anthrax killer, and subjected to the same kind of media witch hunt and 24-hour surveillance for months before the charges were dropped.

“If anybody in the country really knew what it was like to be Steven Hatfill for the past six years, nobody would trade places with him,” said one of Hatfill’s attorneys, Mark Grannis, at the time. He faulted “a handful of credulous reporters,” who he said published or broadcast government leaks of “gossip, speculation and misinformation.”

A good policy when you see a whistle-blower like Kiriakou on the wrong side of the Justice Department: be incredulous.

Nevertheless, it’s examples like these, and of recent post-9/11 whistle-blowers, that serve as chilling reminders for anyone else thinking of coming forward against government wrongdoing or negligence, says Van Buren.

“The bureaucracies know this intimidation keeps people in line. Other employees watch and say, not me, not my mortgage, not my family and remain silent. Creative, thoughtful people see this and decide, correctly, to avoid government service,” said Van Buren.

“What’s that quote, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent? That in fact is what the government’s aim is, for make good people remain silent, out of fear. They might as well translate that into Latin and carve it into the stone walls at Foggy Bottom, or at Langley, or out at Fort Meade.”

Twitter Vlahos @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.